Teaching as a learning process

March 14, 2005 1:03 p.m.
Pedro Goldbaum

Doctoral student Pedro Goldbaum stresses the importance of tailoring instruction to the range of students in his classes — from physics majors to other science majors to non-science majors.

The Feb. 28 Princeton Weekly Bulletin profiles three graduate students who have excelled as teachers: Kerry Bystrom, Susan McWilliams and Pedro Goldbaum.

Below left:
Politics graduate student Susan McWilliams (right) meets with junior Daniella Gitlin to discuss the course “American Political Thought.”

photos: Denise Applewhite

Graduate students hone skills, strengthen University’s commitment to undergraduate instruction
Princeton graduate students play a key role in meeting the University’s historic commitment to undergraduate teaching. Keeping alive Woodrow Wilson’s ideal of student-centered instruction, graduate students can be seen across campus encouraging discussions about readings and running lab experiments or problem sessions, all while pursuing their own studies.

The Feb. 28 issue of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin profiled three graduate students who have flourished as teachers. At Princeton, the majority of doctoral candidates teach. Teaching is a requirement in nearly half of the academic departments, and generally is undertaken during a student’s second and third years.

Ph.D. students who teach describe the experience as a learning process for them, just as it is for their students. This intellectual give-and-take is perhaps most evident in the precept setting, which was introduced by Wilson in 1905 to stimulate conversation about readings and lectures. Many humanities and social science courses at Princeton include lectures led by a faculty member and a precept, which enrolls approximately 12 undergraduates and often is guided by a graduate student.

Gitlin and McWilliams

For some graduate students, the bug bites hard enough to prompt them to seek teaching opportunities even beyond their field of expertise or the campus itself.

Along the way, assistants in instruction — which is the University’s title for graduate student teachers — turn to a range of resources to help them strengthen their teaching abilities.

Easily the most important sources of inspiration and guidance for novice teachers are faculty members, who serve as mentors and role models. Various academic departments also run training sessions to prepare students for teaching. In addition, campus resources such as the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and the Writing Center are instrumental in providing instruction to new teachers. Not least, feedback from the students they teach as well as insights from peers have a significant impact on helping graduate students hone their classroom skills.

“We view teaching as a key component of a Ph.D. education, whether a student intends to pursue a career in academia, the corporate world, or government or nonprofit sectors,” said Dean of the Graduate School William Russel. “To learn how to explain clearly to a novice a basic concept, or the essence of your field, is valuable to anyone. Any faculty member will admit that one does not truly know a subject until teaching it.”

The graduate students profiled in the Weekly Bulletin were honored in 2004 by the Graduate School for their dedication and effectiveness in teaching: Kerry Bystrom in English and Susan McWilliams in politics, both of whom received the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni Teaching Award sponsored by the graduate alumni; and Pedro Goldbaum in physics, who received the Friends of the International Center Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given annually to an international graduate student.